Why we have to think differently about science and religion

This is an article commissioned from me from the American Physics Journal Physics Today. With their permission I am republishing it here for readers of this blog,

Maintaining the “alternative fact” that science and religion, and in particular Christianity, are in conflict is hurting science. Over the past year, three occasions have left me with strong visual memories and deep impressions that point towards a better approach.

The first, held at St John’s College of Durham University in the UK, was a debate on the sensitive topic of ‘fracking’—shale-oil recovery by hydraulic fracturing. I have witnessed several such discussions, both live and broadcast, and they rarely succeed in anything except escalating entrenched positions and increasing misinformation and fear; few participants bother to treat the science with respect.

Tom McLeish seminarThis gathering was different. Strongly opposing views were expressed, but their proponents listened to each other. Everyone was keen to grasp both the knowns and the uncertainties of the geological science and technology. Social science and geophysics both drew sustained civil dialog. The notion of different priorities was understood—and some people actually changed their views.

The second occasion was some reading I have been doing for a book on the role of creativity and imagination in science. Research for one chapter had led me to connections between the explosion of new science in the 17th century and ideas from the same period expressed in literature, art, and theology.

image

Those ideas included a discussion of the nature of God to a depth unseen since the fourth-century ecumenical councils. One treatise impressed me hugely with its author’s detailed knowledge of textual analysis, variants in New Testament manuscripts, and nuances of Greek; it would rival any current scholarship. Furthermore, it evidenced a scientific logic and a perception of the revolutions in natural philosophy that is very rare in theological writing today.

Job on stageA one-act play I attended in my hometown of York in the UK supplied the third occasion. I’d heard that a respected national theater company had long wanted to create a work based on the ancient book of Job. I admit to a personal love for that ancient poem. No one really knows where it came from, but for my money it contains the most sublime articulation of the innate curiosity into nature that still drives science today but that has clearly deep human roots. Its probing questions seek answers to where hail, lightning, and clouds come from, why stars can be clustered together, how birds navigate huge distances, how the laws of the heavens can be applied to Earth, and so on.

Common across the three occasions is the theme of surprisingly deep and constructive mutual engagement of science and religious belief. The conference on shale-gas recovery was between academic Earth scientists and a few dozen senior church leaders, including bishops of the Church of England. The author of the impressive New Testament scholarship was Isaac Newton. And the play that so impressed me, staged by the Riding Lights Theatre Company in the elegant renaissance church of St Michael le Belfrey in York, featured a 20th-century Job as a research physicist. After the performance a panel of scientists discussed how their faith supports their scientific research. Anyone who has not read beyond the superficial yet ubiquitous stories of conflict between science and religion that receive so much airtime today would be surprised to see such deep entanglements of scientific and religious thinking, from the ancient past of the book of Job to current scientifically informed political decision making.

Between the ancient and the contemporary lies the history of early modern science. There, too, the public sphere today seems dominated by a determined program of misinformation. Newton himself is testimony to the deep formative role of Christian theology in the rise of experimental and mathematical sciences. Far from being a sort of secular triumph over centuries of dogmatic obscurantism, the writings of early modern scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle make it clear that they were motivated by the theological philosophy of Francis Bacon.

For Bacon, science became the gift by which humankind restores an original knowledge of nature, lost as a consequence of rejection of God. The truth that faith conveyed direct motivation and influence for many great scientists can be uncomfortable. Historian of science and biographer Geoffrey Cantor, author of Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist—A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (1991), still receives ‘hate mail’ from readers incensed at the suggestion that such a scientific mind might also have been a Christian one.

We are even learning to readjust our schoolbook picture of the Middle Ages as a period of intellectual stagnation, generally repressive of science. History is far more interesting. The scientific enlightenment that gave birth to the Copernican Revolution, the Royal Society of London, the universal theory of gravitation, and the telescope and microscope did not, of course, arise from nowhere. The long fuse for that intellectual fireworks display was lit in 12th-century Europe by scholars like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon through the movement to translate Aristotle’s scientific texts. They were mostly lost to the West since late antiquity but were preserved and developed by brilliant Islamic scholars in Baghdad, the Levant, and Spain. Arab natural philosophers Al-Kindi, Averroës, Alhazen and Avicenna ought to be far better known as beacons in the long history of science; they, too, saw their task of comprehending the cosmos as God-given. The consequent scientific awakening in the West saw the new learning about the cosmos, not as conflictual with the Bible, but as a ‘second book’ to be read alongside it.

The scholars’ work allowed 13th-century English thinkers Grosseteste, Bacon, and others to develop theories of light, color, and motion. Their work led, for example, to the first complete theory of the rainbow at the level of geometric optics, from the laboratory of Theodoric of Freiberg in the 1320s and to the first mathematical articulation of accelerated motion by Jean Buridan of Paris a decade later. Small wonder that Nicolaus Copernicus saw his astronomical work as a form of worship and that Galileo Galilei viewed it as reading God’s second book.

Maintaining the alternative fact that science and religion are in conflict does no one any favors and is hurting science. The damage comes not only through a warped transmission of history but also because it suggests to religious communities that science is a threat to them rather than an enterprise they can celebrate and support. The bishops’ fracking conference is just one example of how the quality of social support of and discussion around science can be raised once churches get involved. After all, a community with a commitment to core values of truth and a banishment of fear might well offer the clarity and calm needed in a public debate currently marked by far too much falsity and fear.

Equally tragic is that in families with a faith tradition, even very young children may receive the idea that science is not for them or that it somehow threatens their community. The truth is that throughout most of history, scientific investigation has gone hand in hand with a commitment to theism, at least in the three Abrahamic faiths. It is, sadly, possible to invent conflict where none needs to be.

The “literal” reading of texts such as Genesis–as if they were scientific documents rather than part of a story in which we inquire about the universe–is a 20th-century aberration away from orthodox Christianity. Conversely, misrepresenting faith as mindless adherence to beliefs in the face of evidence to the contrary needs to give way to a more thoughtful understanding. The term can describe painstaking engagement with the world through the true stories we are part of. Reflecting the vital presence of what we might call “reasoned hope,” faith is not so very far from descriptions of the experience of doing science.

Driving an unhistorical and unrealistic wedge between science and religion has got to stop. It leads, in part, to the optionalism that we see in some public and political attitudes toward science, from climate change to vaccination. It damages the educational experience of our children, and it impoverishes our understanding of our own science’s historical context. Human beings live not only in a physical world but within historical narratives that give us values, purpose, and identity. Science sits on the branches and draws from the sap of many of those stories whose roots are anchored in the great themes of creation, redemption, and renewal that course through our religious traditions and endow us with humanity. We are still looking for answers to some of the questions God asks of the luckless Job:

The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the Earth? …

What is the way to the place where lightning is dispersed …?

Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?

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Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist?

FaWis_450A good colleague of mine at my University of Durham’s philosophy department, Dr. Emily Thomas, recently posted a short essay with this title on the (wonderful) academic multi-disciplinary blogsite TheConversation. It’s had a great number of readers, one of whom was me. I like most of what Emily writes, but this time, as she knows, I had a rather strong negative reaction! So I thought I would write a little about this question on the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog, as it is clearly important for a good number of people.

Eagle Dark matter

A massive computer simulation of the cosmic web of Dark Matter, Gas and Galaxies from the Eagle Project 300 million light years across- itself only a 30th of the diameter of the observable universe

Here is the short version:

  • Yes the Universe is ‘mind-bogglingly big’ (thanks Douglas Adams) on the scale of the human being (see image and caption above)

but

  • No, that does NOT imply in any way that the ‘Christian God’ is less likely to exist

because

  • The argument confuses the two distinct categories of scale and significance (the old ‘size matters’ problem)

and

  • Is, as typical of arguments from philosophers and scientists today that they believe impact on Christian theology, based on a level of triviality of theological learning and sophistication that makes me blush to read it.

So, just a little more on that.  The confusion of scale and significance is an easy one to make – we are overawed by size, vastness, immensity. Of course we are. But that is a visceral reaction not a cognitive one.  I hesitate to illustrate the point, but we do not ascribe a greater significance to a mountain than to a human baby simply because the first is 7 orders of magnitude larger than the second.  One of the special abilities that humans have is to identify meaning and significance, and to associate that with narrative place and relationship.

To take a more cosmological example, we do not know how common life is in the universe (yes Drake equation, Fermi and all that – another time perhaps – but we really have no idea because we don’t yet have a process for the origin of life).  We might be alone or the galaxy might be teeming with life.  But whichever of those turns out to be the case, the microscopic and special event or events that start a tree of life on its way are extraordinarily significant, yet vanishingly tiny in time and space, compared with the 13 billion years, and light years of the cosmic T and R. Another vital point rides on this – namely that in order to have had enough time to manufacture heavy elements in the first generation of stars since the Big Bang, and to evolve a second generation of stars, planets and life since then actually requires a universe the size of ours.  So the length scale of the cosmos and the human scale are physically and causally related, it turns out.

Thirdly, those who take the line that the largeness of the universe rules out a theology of specificity have forgotten that even our notion of scale ordering is conventional.  Physicists, mathematicians, chemists and molecular biologists are used to thinking in ‘reciprocal space’.  Its the space in which the diffraction patterns of molecular structure dwell, the realm of the Fourier transforms, of the photon fields in theoretical physics.

BGc483iCMAAZq21

X-ray diffraction pattern of Beryl in reciprocal space (Bruno Juricic)

The figure shows an example.  The point is that descriptions of reality can be made either in ‘real space’ or reciprocal space, in which the information on large objects is held in small places, and vice versa.  In many ways, physics looks more natural in this space.  If we were to apply the ‘large matters’ mantra in a view of the world through reciprocal space, then we would be led to favour the small, the detailed, over the large.  Of course I am not advocating that automatically any more than its opposite, merely pointing out that the ascription of large or small numbers to objects in the world is conventional, so cannot carry any philosophical weight at all.

Finally we need to do out theology just a little better.  Yes of course there is a strong strand of the particular and special in Judeo-Christianity.  Israel, Moses, election, … and supremely the incarnation.  But that is not the only strand.  From the oldest texts there is alongside this an decentralising narrative as well.  Readers of this blog will at this point not be surprised that we are going to go to the Book of Job for a reminder of the warning not to be exclusively anthropocentric about the world.  For the pinnacle of Yahweh’s creation as displayed to Job in the ‘Lord’s Answer’ is not the human, but the sublime and ‘other’ creatures of Leviathan and Behemoth (from Job chapter 40):

15“Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you  and which feeds on grass like an ox.16 What strength it has in its loins,  what power in the muscles of its belly!17 Its tail sways like a cedar;  the sinews of its thighs are close-knit.18 Its bones are tubes of bronze,    its limbs like rods of iron.19 It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword.

Even the later and highly-developed Genesis 1 creation narrative does not stop with humankind, but reaches its climax with the Sabbath, God’s rest, where He is central.  Jesus takes up the non-anthropocentric theme at several points in the Gospel narrative.  It’s not ‘all about us’.  A number of theologians have explored this theme – Christopher Southgate’s book The Groaning of Creation is a good starting point for a discussion that goes back to Aquinas and further.

So in conclusion, the findings of modern cosmology turn out to balance the place and significance of humans in much the same way that the Judeo-Christian narrative does.

It’s not the size, it’s what you do that matters, and who you are.

The-Lord-Answering-Job-out-of-the-Whirlwind-Blake

The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

Theatre, Science, the Book of Job – and Faith in the Questions

Faith-In-The-Questions-FW-banner

FaWis_450A play based on connections between the Book of Job and science!

This is going to be an exciting week (quite apart from a general election in the UK).  Financial support from the Durham-based Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science project has allowed the development of a one-act play exploring the idea proposed in Faith and Wisdom in Science that the Old Testament Book of Job serves as a fundamental text from which we can trace the questions which today underpin the wonderful human cultural activity that we call ‘Science’.  In particular it takes the essential, and paradoxical, form of questions that is assumed by the ‘Lord’s Answer’ to Job in the Biblical book.

Faith-In-The-Questions-poster-423x600A group of us in York have been working with the well-known theatre company Riding Lights and their writer Nigel Forde on the play Counting the Clouds.  To find out more you will really have to get along to St. Michael-le-Belfrey church (hard by York Minster) at 7.30 pm on the evenings of Thursday, Friday or Saturday June 8th, 9th and 10th.  Suffice it to say that the afflicted yet faithful Job is, in the play, a contemporary scientists, and that one of his ‘comforters’ includes a hard-line humanities-trained clergyman for whom science is a spoiler, a destroyer of wonder, and a threat to his faith.  Both have things to learn.

On each evening, the play will be followed by a second hour of panel discussion between the audience and a group of scientists who are also Christians.  It’s not impossible that I will be among them, but so will Steve Smye OBE of Leeds University and the National Institute of Health Research, and others of wide and deep experience.

foi-logoThe event, Faith in the Questions, forms part of York’s current Festival of Ideas, in which there is lots more on art, literature, politics, science, theology and more to entertain, educate and inspire – so get up to York this week, join in the discussion, and experience Counting the Clouds!.

You can find more information on the event and booking here.

 

 

How Christian Faith Supports Science

‘Can you give us a few words on how a Christian worldview assists science?’, was the question put to me a few weeks ago by the organisers of an event in Leeds run by Faith in Scholarship under a new resource called The Church Scientific.  I wasn’t able to attend in person at the launch, sadly, but was able to put a few thoughts together for a video message they showed.

Galileo

Galileo Galilei

 

‘Wait!’ I hear you say.  What a ridiculous question – for centuries Christianity has exerted a drag force, surely, on the forward momentum of science? Think about Galileo, evolution … how can a worldview that elevates dogma in spite of evidence possibly assist a scientific outlook of evidence-based fact?

So runs the tired, and (paradoxically) ill-informed, dogmatic and not-at-all evidence-based view sadly trotted out in public and the media today.  And more than sadly, taught to children in a way that plants an ignorance of history, of philosophy, of a true notion of science and indeed of a true idea of Christianity that can last a lifetime.

That there is a very different story to be told, much more in line with how science really works and how Christian faith operates, and has operated in the development of mind, worldview ethics and imagination, is the reason I wrote Faith and Wisdom in Science and the reason that Dave Hutchings and I just finished Let There Be Science (out with LionHudson in January), which takes the idea of Science as God’s Gift to a wider readership, and develops exactly this idea.  Through the ages, the balance of evidence indicates that a Christian worldview has propelled science forward both on the individual and communal level.

For the full version – see the books!  But for a few brief pointers for thought …

  1. To do science needs huge courage, against the expectation that we might be able to comprehend the nature of the universe with our minds. The hope that we might be able to do this comes from Biblical Wisdom such as encapsulated in The Book of Job (chapter 28 in particular) and in the idea of being created in the image of God.
  2. pleiadesThe core creative activity in science is to pose the imaginative question – and imaginative questions about nature, the nature of God and the human, are the intellectual Biblical backbone.  Can you bind the stars of the Pleiades? is just one of the 165 searching questions put to Job by God (chapter 38).  The Bible’s Jewish milieu is deeply educational in the tradition of the pedagogy of questions.
  3. Science is hard!  It’s full of disappointment and struggle as well as joy (on occasion).  The painful story of any engagement with nature is the Biblical account through and through, from the ‘great commission’ in Genesis to the metaphor of creation groaning of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
  4. Science requires us time and again to change what we believe in the light of evidence.  Sometimes this is a total about-face.  It’s a hard thing to do, to change a deeply-held view. Yet the experience of turning a worldview upside down is exactly what is required to become a Christian.  It’s good training to drop cherished ideas n the light of new observations when the idea that following oneself has already been laid aside in favour of the new direction of following Jesus.
  5. Science is done in community. It is in the end a work of love, of the world, and of the others with whom we share the work.  We can only do that in an atmosphere of respect and trust, of mutual encouragement.  It isn’t always like this in reality, but science works best when these resolutely Christian values are deployed.
  6. Science keeps you humble.  The more we learn, the bigger the ‘coastline of science’ – the boundary perceived between the known and the unknown, also grows, as Marcelo Gleiser has pointed out in his recent book The Island of Knowledge.

More is true – we have not touched here on the historical conception of the experimental science we know today through the theological motivation of the early Christina thinkers, through philosophers such as Bede, Adelard, Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and through the Renaissance to Francis Bacon and the scientists of the 17th century.

This is not the replacement of theological thinking by a new secular tradition, but the outworking of a theologically motivated understanding that a work of healing is given to us by our Creator, alongside the tools to do it. If medicine is God’s gift to us for the work of healing broken people, the science is God’s gift to us for the work of healing a broken relationship with nature.

 

Can a Freethinker Believe in God?

Following an online interview with an interesting organisation called TheFreeThinkTank, they asked me to write an opinion piece for them on the title above.  They had read Faith and Wisdom in Science, and thought that it approached science from a point of view that atheist readers might find more able to engage with than other Christian ‘science and religion’ material. In case readers wonder why this is an issue at all, the ‘Freethinking’ movement has its history in secular and non-theistic thinking, so the expectation within that movement (and of several people I know) is most certainly a NO!  But dig a little deeper and it’s not at all clear that it’s quite that simple….

Here I reblog the essay:

This article originally appeared on The Freethink Tank, on December 1, 2016.

moscow-1_tcm233-2369440The post-doctoral researcher, who first worked with me as a new-minted junior lecturer, came from Moscow. A theoretical physicist trained in the excellent school of polymer physics at MGU, Tanya was a fearsomely good mathematician and wielded theoretical statistical mechanics with a distinctly Russian flavour. That was scientifically useful – two complementary approaches to a problem are always more powerful than one. We compared other notes too – about our education and our very different experiences growing up in 60s/70s London or Moscow. I was interested and somewhat amused when the topic of teenage rebellion came up. Schooled with a stream of materialist atheism and Soviet cultural history by day – Tanya and her breakaway 16-year-old friends would head off to underground churches by night. Context makes a big difference.

I’m not offering teenage contrariness as an example of ‘freethinking’, but the roots of the freethinking movement also constitute a deliberate departure from a received norm, albeit a more grown-up one. The example of those wicked teen rebels chanting psalms by candle-light might serve to remind us that the expression of freedom is defined by its context, and by its act, not by a foreordained place of arrival.

Degrees of freedom

For any act, including acts of thinking, to be free requires a lack of constraint. The more constraints imposed on a world of thought, the less free will that mind has to explore, create, to think radically. The analogy here is with the sciences of mechanics, or of thermodynamics. For each constraint imposed on a system, there is one fewer ‘degree of freedom’. So my first approach to the question in this article’s title is to explore this physical metaphor of freedom and constraint. According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation (quoted to me by an atheist friend who had been confused that The Freethink Tank had interviewed me and invited this contribution):

No one can be a freethinker who demands conformity to a bible, creed, or messiah. To the freethinker, revelation and faith are invalid, and orthodoxy is no guarantee of truth.’

Constraints on conclusions

True enough – a freethinker cherishes freedom in others as much as in herself, and will not make ‘demands’ of conformity on the thought of others. But when the mandatory tone is removed, the Foundation’s statement begins to look like a constraint. The a priori demand that thinking through a world-view should rule out belief in God, constitutes a constraint, a mental removal of a cogitative degree of freedom. More constraints imply fewer degrees of freedom, so imposing a non-theist constraint to thinking achieves the same as any constraint – it makes it less free, not more. The philosopher Bertrand Russell knew that freethinkers do not impose the constraints of conclusions at the outset of their thinking; he insists that freedom of thought is a process, not an end:

bertrandrussellWhat makes a freethinker is not his beliefs but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favour, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.’

I could finish here in a flourish of unanswerable logic, but suspect that would be less than satisfactory. Much of the remainder of his 1944 essay The Value of Free Thought is spent pointing out examples of cruelties and enormities of religious power structures, in which he is largely correct, and rehearsing the supposed age-old conflicts between religion and science, in which he is largely mistaken. Russell insists that a theistic stance must be shackling to thought, preserving of harmful prejudice and inimical to the creation of the new. For him, all religion is backward-looking in a world that needs to reach out with hope to the future. He implies that although theism is possible for a freethinker in principle, it ought to be ruled out in practice. I suspect he speaks for most readers at this point, so we need to go a little deeper than the mathematics of constraint to decide whether in practice a freethinker might ever arrive at a belief in God.

Theologically-informed philosophy

Staying with Russell’s great bête noire of Christianity, we might explore the degree to which its worldview shackles or serves freedom of thought. And since the ‘medieval’ church has received more censure in this regard than most ages, let us read from Adelard of Bath – a remarkable 12th-century thinker. After an intellectual pilgrimage to the great adelard-of-bath-04Arab schools in Sicily and Asia Minor, he returns to southern England full of passion for a theologically-informed natural philosophy and writes his Questiones Naturales (or Questions on Natural Science) in about 1110. He makes an amusing and fascinating complaint in its preface: ‘… for the present generation suffers from an ingrained fault, that it thinks that nothing should be accepted which is discovered by the “moderns”. Hence it happens that, whenever I wish to publish my own discovery, I attribute it to another person saying: “Someone else said it, not I!”‘. There then follows a book of fascinatingly novel thinking about the natural world of animals, humans, the earth and sky, much of it wildly out of tune with the science of today of course (yet it includes a wonderful account of centripetal gravity on a spherical earth), but very firmly on the questing path that brought us there. Here is a very freethinker, who urges a higher value accorded to the novel ideas that freethinking produces, than he sees in the intellectual world around him. He is one of the generators of the ‘12th-century renaissance’ that galvanised new thinking across Europe and prepared the way for the rise of the experimental method up to the 16th century.

Silent partner of thought

It takes energetic thinkers such as Adelard to motivate the silent partner of thought, namely the will. The great freethinkers have noticed that freedom by itself is not enough – to think into new spaces, to dare explore novel ideas and relations requires an effort, an energy, a release of the will, beyond the ordinary. The great 20th-century thinker Hannah arendtArendt writes extensively on Will in her magisterial The Life of The Mind. For her, to release the possibility of freedom in thinking requires first the comprehension and direction of freedom in the will. She wrestles with both secular and religious sources of constraint on the will: ‘… the trouble has always been that free will, whether understood as freedom of choice or as the freedom to start something unpredictably new – seems utterly incompatible, not just with divine Providence, but with the law of causality‘. Yet free acts of thought are possible, though much harder and rarer than we might flatter ourselves is the case. Arendt scales the philosophy of thought through Hebrew, Hellenistic and Christian frameworks in the search of a ground for freedom. In the company of Epictetus and St. Paul, of Virgil and the ancient author of the Book of Job, it is with Augustine that she finally draws to a close in the ambivalence of the birth of freedom.

I’ve briefly visited these two thinkers of such different ages, a Christian and secular Jew, not purely to include reminders of the subtle and rich history of thinking informed by theism, nor purely to rebut the accusation that theism cannot look forward to the new, in the way that both Abelard and Arendt clearly do. For they also illustrate another prior need if one is to be free-thinking – a mental scaffolding with which to explore new spaces. Freedom of movement requires footholds – freedom to explore a domain of thought is as important as freedom from impediments.

Mental construction kit

It is this sense of ‘freedom to’, rather than ‘freedom from’, in my own freethinking that led me toward Christianity rather than away from it. It was the rich legacy of ideas, its mental construction kit, that constitute a freedom to think in the categories I needed. There is, for example, more than one perspective on a core idea like divine creation – is this an ancient doctrine that we need freedom from or an energising idea that gives us freedom to think in categories of purpose, or of our own creativity? Is a belief in the resurrection a nonsense of myth and delusion that still shackles too many modern minds or the fundamental source of freedom to hope?

FaWis_450I am a working scientist, but I have also long wanted to conceive and communicate a human narrative for science within culture. I constantly detect that the human core of science has been at best hollowed out and at worst lost in our superficial and materialistic times. Our culture has ‘optionalised’ science in a dangerous and impoverishing way. Working through the history and pre-history of science for this project, I found the need to draw on the theological story of ends, relationships, healing, even to articulate an account of the problem. Belief and a life of thought in God ‘felt like’ it was giving me the framework to make the first foray into the cavernous space of those ideas (that ended up in my book Faith and Wisdom in Science).

Why artificially constrain our freedom to think by padlocking all that possibility away, especially as theism begins to look increasingly subversive of today’s received dogma?

What’s the Story? And why all the Theological Baggage? – Grilling the book at TORCH from all sides

TORCHThe Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH) is currently running a series of events on Humanities and Science. At the intersection of this programme with their regular ‘Book at Lunchtime’ seminars, on February 11th an Oxford based panel of three disciplinary experts shone their critical torchlights on  Faith and Wisdom in Science.

Perspectives from English Literature (Prof. Sally Shuttleworth), History (Prof. John Christie) and Physics (Prof Ard Louis) proved a sharp and effective way to touch on critical aspects of the book. For all of them both positive responses and critical questions turned on the central theme of narrative. Should we, and how can we understand science itself and narrative? And as the book itself asks, where can we find and deploy a constructive cultural narrative for science that might unlock some of the current misrepresentations and political tangles around science and technology in the public forum? Louis referred to the ‘lament’ that science is not a cultural possession in the same way that art or music is, and urged the advantage of telling the messy story of real science practice. Christie sketched the obscured historical details within the stories of Galileo and Newton,

Galileo  Galilei

Galileo Galilei

and of the Biblical basis for Frances’ Bacon’s vision for modern science, which serve deconstruct the worn old myths about confrontation of science and religion. Shuttleworth welcomed the telling of the stories of science as questioning and creative, yet suffering the fate of almost always being wrong.

Faith and Wisdom in Science sets out to explore what resources Judeo-Christian theology can supply in constructing a social narrative for science – one that might describe both what science is for, and how it might be more widely enjoyed. It draws on history to claim that the project we now call ‘science’ is in continuity with older human activities by other names; ‘natural philosophy’ in the early modern period and in ancient times just ‘Wisdom’. The theology of science that emerges is ‘participatory reconciliation’, a hopeful engagement with the world that both lights it up and heals our relationship with it.

But is theology the only way to get there? Are we required to carry the heavy cultural baggage of Christian history of thought and structures? Shuttleworth recalled George Eliot’s misery at the dissection of the miraculous as she translated Strauss’ ‘Life of Jesus’ at the dawn of critical Biblical studies. Yet Eliot is able to conceive of a rich and luminous narrative for science in MiddleMarchMiddlemarch:

“…the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space.”

Eliot’s sources are T.H. Huxley, J.S. Mill and Auguste Comte, and of course her partner G.H Lewes,  They are by no means theological (Comte had even constructed a secular religion). Perhaps this is an example of an entirely secular route to science’s story? Yet her insight into science as a special sort of deep ‘seeing’ also emerges from the ancient wisdom of, for example, the Book of Job. In a parallel and contemporary book Seeing the World and Knowing God, Oxford theologian Paul Fiddes also calls on the material of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes to challenge the post-modern dissolution of subject and object. Participatory reconciliation emerges for both theologian and scientist motivated to draw on ancient wisdom for modern need. Was Eliot, and will all secular thinkers in the Western tradition be, in some way irrevocably connected to these ancient wellsprings of our thinking?

An aspect of the ‘baggage’ most desirable to drop, according to Shuttleworth, is the notion that scientists are a sort of priesthood. Surely this speaks to the worst suspicions of a mangled modern discourse of authority and power. Louis even suggested that the science/religion debate is really only a proxy for this larger and deeper one. Perhaps the first-temple notion of ‘servant priesthood’ is now too overlain with the strata of power-play to serve as a helpful metaphor for how we go about enacting the story of science.

But science needs to rediscover its story, and it is only by acknowledge that its narrative underpinnings must come from the humanities, that it is going to find it.

Newcastle Phil and Lit: Technology and Heidegger

This week the redoubtable Newcastle Philosophical and Literary society, in partnership with Newcastle College, extended a very warm and hospitable welcome to a Faith and a Wisdom discussion in their current series entitled ‘On the Edge’ (we were ‘On the Edge of Faith’).  It’s so heartening to see these highly civilised organisations dedicated to thinking, learning and discussion still flourishing in the heart of our great cities, selling out on a wet and cold February Thursday.

the question time was very impressive and also challenging.  We had managed to cover

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

Newcastle Phil and Lit library

a little science (Brownian motion of signalling proteins – an example of order out of chaos and a reflection on our human ability to see below the surface of nature), some science history (Grosseteste’s extraordinary cosmogony in his 1225 De Luce) and a decent look at the hymn to wisdom in Job 28 in the search for material in support of a deep narrative for science.

‘Might the apprentice conflict between science and religion stem from technology rather than science itself?’ Wondered one questioner. I think that the thrust here is that science itself is not inherently threatening, as it ‘lights up the world’ rather than ‘changes the world’.  Indeed, as John Hedley-Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor point out in theirs Gifford lectures ‘Reconstructing the Universe’, 18th and 19th century chemistry was especially challenging theologically as it was (at that time) far more than physics or biology, the science that changed the world.  And doing this touches the raw nerve of that deeply reactionary ‘playing at God and trespassing on sacred nature’ narrative that plays out even today as an underlying driver of debate around technology.  However, I don’t think that historically the role of technology over against science holds up as a catalyst of confrontation.  It was not developing technology that Draper and White invoked in their 19th century polemics that painted for the first time the backdrop of conflict on the stage of science and religion.

A second questioner challenged my reference to Heidegger as a philosopher incompatible with the Bible.  In fact I was also accused of mentioning only this one philosopher – grave omission indeed at a ‘lit and PHIL’.  But I checked that we had in fact also discussed Arendt and Aristotle during the evening, so I hope we made our quota.  Actually I had referred to him as another thinker who echoes the theme of ‘hiddenness’ of the world (in his Being and Time).  This is not of course to endorse all his thought, much of which has been accused as obscurantist. His membership of the Nazi party during the 1930s and the war years will also always be a stain on his reputation. However, there is no reason to ignore everything that such a serious thinker has said, in spite of his faults. Arendt herself drew heavily on his ideas in describing the alienation from nature in her ‘The Human Condition’.

Now I am of course realising that there is a connection between the two questions. Heidegger was a philosopher deeply concerned with how we live in a technological society.  But perhaps he lacked the roots of ancient wisdom that the book of Job mysteriously urges us towards in its reach towards today’s world from such very different times.